Henslow’s Sparrow (Centronyx henslowii) is a regular but uncommon and declining winter visitor, (October to April), to the Eastern part of Texas and South Eastern US. It migrates to its breeding grounds in the North Eastern US in the spring and returns to the South each fall. Records in the Western part of the state are extremely rare with most records being East of the Brazos river and drainage area. The resident breeding population in Harris County has been extinct for a number of years.
Typical habitat is tall grass prairies and damp grass meadows with old vegetation and weedy patches. The Henslow’s Sparrow is typically very secretive and solitary and can be extremely difficult to see except when singing on its breeding grounds. Nests are typically on the ground hidden in deep brush.
The Henslow’s Sparrow usually feeds on grasshoppers and beetles in summer and seeds in winter (particularly Wire Grass).
The Henslow’s Sparrow was, until recently, a member of the Ammodramus genus together with seven other so-called “American sparrows”. It has been reclassified, (2018), into the Centronyx genus with Baird’s Sparrow. It is a small sparrow (5” in length) with a noticeably flat head and a short rounded tail.
The Henslow’s Sparrow is distinguished by a darkish and uniquely olive- tinged head. The heads of other sparrows found in this habitat, LeConte’s, Grasshopper etc, are typically buffy to orange. Henslow’s Sparrows have dark streaking on breast and flanks, and a rufous back and tail. Bill and legs are typically grayish pink. Note that the crown has a yellow-olive stripe bordered with dark stripes on either side. Throat is typically light with small, dark moustachial stripes on either side.
In flight the large head, rufous back, and short, rounded tail are good ID indicators. Flight is typically low and of short duration, with individuals typically diving into cover when disturbed. Sexes are similar.
Its call is a typical sparrow “tsip” and its song a three syllabled “f-lee-sic.” It does typically call during flight with a high pitched “sreee.”
- Until relatively recently a sub-species, (houstonensis), was resident in greater North Houston area but was driven to extinction when their habitat was lost due to development.
- First collected and described by Audubon in 1820, Henslow’s Sparrow is named after his friend John Stevens Henslow – an Englishman who helped Audubon sell subscriptions to Birds of North America after a visit there. Henslow was actually the Cambridge University professor who recommended Charles Darwin to the Captain of the Beagle for their famous voyage.
- The global population is estimated at 80,000 individuals and this species is considered under threat of extinction. The current population is considered stable but Henslows numbers have decreased by 95% since the 1970’s!